this is an excellent and tremendously important book all around.
briefly, it's about our capacity to empathize with others who are suffering or are worse off in general, and why it is that relying on these feelings (and trusting in the charity they supposedly effect) makes for bad policy -- not only are our emotions often short-lived, but we also possess an impressive lineup of cognitive shortcomings that allow us to ignore or redirect our empathy, or occasionally to ignore our humane feelings and "blame the victim."
the best policy, he argues, would be transform the empathy we feel for our neighbors and for others around the world into concrete, consistent government programs that can create a safety net for others in order to reduce poverty and alleviate suffering around the world. (not that the solutions are always easy to come by, but we need policies in place that will direct our better intentions into reliable, effective programs.)
is it acceptable that we have one of the highest poverty rates, especially for children, among the wealthier nations of the world? what about our infant mortality rate?
he then sets about demonstrating ways in which both "outside strategies" have proven effective, whether in the lab or in the real world -- looking at foreign government and the private sector -- and discusses ways in which the "libertarian" (used generally) perspective regarding new government intrusions are misguided, as we can already find parallels today. as a society, we have to realize our priorities and transform the empathy we feel for others who are struggling or who have limited opportunities and create "nets" and strategies -- realistically based on our actual decision-making processes, as demonstrated by cognitive and psychological research -- that will ensure that no one slips through the cracks and we can provide consistent support for our neighbors and fellow human beings.
a brief excerpt here gives an idea of what he envisions for our society: "The idea of a new demos, and a modern agora, may seem idealistic. But there is nothing pie in the sky about pools of citizens deliberating with the advice of scientists; such groups already exist. There is nothing exotic about a government Committee on Science and Technology; the House of Representatives already uses one to make law. And there is nothing utopian about a government that is aggressively humane, constantly searching for ways to make our lives more satisfying and comfortable. Whatever the fate of these positive proposals, they are not grounded in the foolish optimism that our society will improve whenever we recognize the need. Well-being programs designed for the common good must give the greatest number of people a fighting chance to be happy. A humane government steps in with social plans when our individual judgment fails us. A new twenty-first century Enlightenment of the head and heart, of rationality and empathy, can help us build and implement those social plans so that we don't fail others."
oh, let it be, let it be!